Why I Stopped Setting Goals For My Life & Business… It’s Complicated

Apr 14, 2020 | Mindset & Identity, Productivity

Woman with her hair in a messy bun looking out over a valley

Most small business owners I know have an “it’s complicated” type of relationship to setting goals.

They know they’re supposed to set goals for their life and business. They know they’re supposed to make plans to meet those goals. Some do, some don’t.

Some set goals one month only to abandon them the next. Some set goals and power through them even when new information comes to light. Some spend months (or longer) just trying to figure out what goals to set. Some swear by their goal-setting process but end up judging themselves or their actions harshly when it doesn’t quite work out.

I get it.

My relationship with goal-setting has always been complicated, too. I’m an achievement-oriented, hyper-competitive, winning-is-my-personal-identity type. Setting goals and racing toward the finish line was just how I functioned.

I’ve never seen a shiny medal I didn’t want to win.

Unfortunately, chasing medals and merit badges hasn’t always led me down the right-for-me path. My personal specialty is choosing a goal based on limited (and often faulty) information and then calculating the fastest path to achieving it without regard for long-term ramifications.

Promotions, scholarships, leadership roles, partnerships…

…if it feels like a step up, it’s the step I want to take as quickly as I can. In other words, I’m a ladder climber. Academic ladders, professional ladders, social ladders, athletic ladders–I will work the system to get higher and higher.

I’ve not done it particularly well or with a master plan the way some folks do. But the drive to prove myself worthy of another step up has dominated how I approach life, work, and play.

In high school, it was paramount to me to be the 1st chair trombonist — to climb over the other players to get to the top.

In college, my goal was to be in charge of the weekly worship services on campus and also to be the top student in the religion department. Oh, and to be drum major — that was important, too.

In my over-before-it-began graduate school experience, I realized that I had no idea how to climb the ladder and that I maybe hadn’t even been on the right ladder in the first place. So I quit.

Quitting graduate school led to working in retail — where the siren song of promotion after promotion kept me from seeing that I was climbing a ladder I didn’t even want to be climbing in the first place.

When I started my business, I found myself on a new ladder and looked to others to figure out what goals to set so I could start climbing.

Every achievement someone else made was a rung on the ladder I could use to move up.

At this point, you’re probably either nodding along thinking, “Yeah, me too,” or you’re thinking “Woah, that’s messed up.”

Maybe you’re thinking both. It’s taken a lot of work to get to the point where I can say both.

Anyhow, a little over 4 years ago now, I started to question all the ladder climbing. I started to wonder how I could do things differently. Then, I didn’t have much of a grasp on specifics — I just had a persistent inkling that I needed to recalibrate.

These past 4 years have been full of reflection, analysis, and awareness-building. While I’m more sure than ever that I don’t want to climb the ladder anymore, I know that my default mode is still to try to ascend. My identity is still tightly wrapped around each rung.

Recently, I heard Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body Is Not An Apology, talk about our drive to climb the ladder. A line from she said has stuck with me — boring itself into my very being. Sonya said:

“The ladder is real only because we keep trying to climb it.”

To this point, my recalibration has been to try to ignore the ladder. To keep my eyes on my own paper and ignore how others are getting further ahead — making more money, growing bigger teams, speaking to larger audiences, running faster, lifting more weight, growing bigger quads (I know, I know…).

But ladder-climbing is so entrenched in me that I didn’t realize that I was still seeing the world as a hierarchy.

It was a hierarchy I was trying to detach myself from, but a hierarchy nonetheless.

But what Sonya was saying is that…

…there is no hierarchy.

There is no higher or lower. There is no better or worse. There is no stronger or weaker.

Oof.

Which is not to say there is no difference in who has access to power — but that is a conversation for a different day. Also, it doesn’t mean there is no difference at all. But difference doesn’t exist to give us a way to rank each other (and ourselves).

Climbing the ladder has driven the choices I’ve made. It’s helped me figure out where I stand with others. It has set my goals for me. It’s made my plans for me.

What do I do next if there is no ladder to climb?

I realize, at this point, it sounds like I’ve been in the midst of an existential crisis. I’m not. The truth is that I’ve been wrestling with this for years and that this is a new — and extremely important — layer to that ongoing search for myself and what I want to create in this world.

I think this idea — that there is no ladder — hit me with particular force because we’ve all been experiencing this Great Reset. We’ve all be recalibrating, reexamining. We’ve all been taking stock of what’s truly important to us, to our businesses, to our families, and to our communities.

I hear it in the conversations I facilitate in our community and with our mastermind groups. I see it bubbling up on social media. I witness it in direct messages and virtual coffee dates.

Some of us continue to try to wait it out until a familiar structure, a familiar order of things returns. (And honestly, I think many of us fall into this group in our moments of greatest stress and anxiety.)

Some of us are actively working to create structures that don’t rely on the ladder.

What I have come to realize over the last few years is that:

Climbing up the ladder is only one way I can orient my life and business.

When I see that the ladder isn’t real (or when I see it for what it is — a system of control & oppression), I can choose from an array of orientations that serve me better. I can orient myself toward greater resilience. I can orient myself to my sense of adventure. I can orient myself toward uncertainty or systems or visibility.

Each of these orientations (for myself or for my business) is infinitely more expansive, creative, and satisfying than constantly orienting myself up the ladder.

So what does this mean for the nuts & bolts of how I lead myself and my business?

Well, first it starts with goal-setting. Or, rather, it starts with a lack of goal-setting. You see, I simply have not been able to detach goal-setting from ladder climbing. You might be able to. I have not (yet) been successful.

So I stopped goal-setting.

Instead, I make commitments.

Instead of being results-oriented the way a goal is, a commitment is process-oriented.

If a goal is the destination, a commitment is the compass.

My commitments give me orientation for how I want to approach my strategic priorities for my business, the projects I want to bring to life, and the work I do every day. My commitments help me make decisions and guide my problem-solving.

A goal is saying you want to end up at the beach. A commitment is hopping in your car and driving toward the coast.

Now, that might seem like semantics. And maybe when it comes to the car metaphor, it is.

But when it comes to your life or business? There’s a fundamental difference.

Setting a goal asks you to name the thing you want without regard for the process of achieving it. At best, it’s a stab in the dark most of the time. At worst, it means you can easily get yourself into a pickle when you realize your goal is going to require you to spend your time, money, or energy in ways that don’t align with who you are or what you’re all about.

Sometimes it works out. Maybe you discover that you actually like a new way of operating or you break out of your comfort zone to do something that seemed impossible.

But other times, you end up halfway to your goal doing all sorts of things you never wanted to do (and still don’t want to do).

Setting a commitment, on the other hand, asks you to own the process first. A commitment is about choosing how you want to show up, what you want to have to guide your choices, and why you will take certain actions and not others.

Setting a commitment puts your attention and intention on how what you want from life or business impacts what you do and who you are on a daily basis.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

In the past, I might have set a goal (okay, I did set a goal) to generate $200,000 in a product launch.

While that goal gives me a specific target, it doesn’t give me any direction on how to create that result. My plan included a whole host of ideas for hitting that number and, when things weren’t going the way I wanted them to go, I started getting creative (i.e. desperate) in the ways I was willing to make that happen.

To be clear, I didn’t do anything awful! But I did do things that didn’t serve my longer-term goals, I put undue pressure on my team and myself, and I just created completely unnecessary stress.

On the other hand, a couple of years ago, I set a commitment to “work the system.”

Working the system applied to my own personal task management. It applied to my marketing & sales strategy. It applied to our offers. It applied to my half marathon training and my powerlifting program.

“Work the system” was a constant reminder that I was committed to sticking with what I started and trusting myself to improve and achieve gradually.

In 2020, my commitments were to Embrace Uncertainty, Question Normal, and Expect Success. They’ve guided me through hard decisions about our offers, led me to create more inclusive content, and helped me follow through on campaigns when I usually would have thrown in the towel.

In 2021, I’m committing to Stay Curious, Open to Belonging, and Adapt & Emerge.

Commitments have helped me develop new habits and retrain my brain.

And all along the way, I’ve been able to celebrate the progress I’m making in the process — instead of waiting to achieve some result and climb up an imaginary rung.

What I’m learning is that I might never be able to rid myself of the call to climb the ladder — it’s woven into the very fabric of our culture here in the United States — but that doesn’t mean I have to structure my life around or plan for my business using it.

I can create a structure and plan that isn’t dependent on the ladder to give me purpose or validate my worthiness. I can anchor myself and my business to a deeper expression of my humanity and find my reward in the small ways I choose to act every day.

My commitments help me stay present instead of always working for some future goal. They help me tune into my habits and behavior patterns so I can adjust the ones that aren’t working for me. They help me see how I’m doing enough and how I can continue to improve. My commitments help me steer my life and business in a direction I feel really, really good about — and that’s something that goals could never quite do.

Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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